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Aquatic robotics attracts the attention of a budding engineer

Doctoral student uses scientific knowhow to develop robots capable of gathering environmental data for marine biologists

Mapping the ocean’s environment, robots
Stephanie Kemna's research has the potential to increase the level of autonomy and coordination in underwater vehicles.
(Illustration/Michelle Henry)

Mapping the ocean’s ecosystems is an ongoing challenge for marine biologists.

In the hope of providing a better approach, USC Viterbi School of Engineering PhD student Stephanie Kemna conducts research on underwater vehicles that can help biologists gather key data.

“I am very interested in working on something that can help improve the world from a computer-science perspective,” said Kemna, a member of the Robotic Embedded Systems Laboratory.

The lab’s robots can sample the presence of algae in the water, among other tasks. But the real concern is finding algorithms that allow the robots to make autonomous decisions.

“Stephanie’s research has the potential to significantly increase the level of autonomy and coordination in underwater vehicles, making it easier for non-roboticists to deploy them,” said Gaurav Sukhatme, Kemna’s adviser and chair of the Department of Computer Science.

Kemna is particularly interested in coordination among autonomous robots. She would like to build a system in which the robots can work together to optimize mapping efforts. This involves high levels of specialization and division of labor.

“I want to be able to coordinate a team of robots,” Kemna said. “It would be ideal if they could just be released into the ocean and know what to sample for and where to go.”

I want my research to be useful in both biology and computer science.

Stephanie Kemna

In the future, Kemna hopes to incorporate ideas from information theory into the roots of the robots so they can work in teams aimed at accomplishing a common goal.

“I’ve been thinking about the future of my work, and I want to help biologists gather the best data possible. I want my research to be useful in both biology and computer science,” Kemna said.

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